Difficulty in Video Gaming

Some video games make us want to throw our controllers against the wall and swear never to play again. But somehow we always seem to find ourselves plopped back on the couch, controller clutched tightly in our hands, determined that this time will be different.

Frustration and challenge are part of the appeal of a good game and that fits with much of what we know about what makes good play. More than 50 years ago, Benjamin Spock (the pediatrician, not the character from Star Trek), noted that “a child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” That principle holds true for adults as well. In his insightful book The Art of Failure, Jesper Juul argues that players prefer games that strike the right balance of difficulty, noting that “players like to fail, but not too much.”

Contra, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NYOver the years, game designers have produced numerous games that strike the sweet spot between ease and difficulty. Konami’s Contra, for example, a coin-operated arcade run and gun game from 1987, tasks the player controlling a military commando to neutralize a terrorist group. While players had unlimited ammo, they struggled to make it through the game because a single enemy shot could ruin any chances of success. A year later, Konami ported Contra to the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game included the infamous Konami Code—a cheat that provided players with 30 lives instead of three. Yet, players today continue to struggle to complete Contra.

Battletoads, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NYA few years later, Rare published Battletoads, a beat ‘em up game created to rival the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. The game featured battle toads Rash and Zitz as they seek to rescue their friends from the Dark Queen. Some players struggled to navigate the toads through certain tunnels and others failed to make it through the speed runs. Co-op mode proved one of the most deceptive features of the game. In co-op mode, a player believed that he helped another player, but often he hurt the player by simply getting too close. Numerous players maintain that Battletoads is one of the most difficult games ever created.

Demon's Souls, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NYThe legacy of difficult games continued in 2009 with the release of Demon’s Souls for the PlayStation 3. The game lacked instruction on how to use the battle system and provided little access to health-replenishing items. Both of these factors complicated game play—players quickly realized how difficult boss fights were and also noticed a lack of save points. The only respite from the complexity of the game comes in the online mode, where players can leave messages warning about upcoming traps or difficult fights. Bloodstains can also be triggered to show how a previous player died. The game’s spiritual successor, Dark Souls, proved no easier.

Many players claimed games had become too simple, however, and they reveled in a challenge. (That probably explains the popularity of the devilishly difficult Flappy Bird.) So perhaps there really isn’t such a thing as a game that’s too difficult, or at least not one too difficult to enjoy despite all its hardships. Then again, Dark Souls II just came out in March, and I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, so maybe I shouldn’t speak too soon….